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How the Two-Tiered System in Higher Education Gets Reproduced (and Hopefully Abolished)

To understand how the two-tiered system in higher education reproduces itself, I think it is useful to analyze how those in positions of relative power often serve to legitimate the system rhetorically, culturally and via political discussion. This is especially true when the purported aim of those driving the discussion is a progressive one, as I hope to show below with analyses of a tenure-track professor’s commentary on healthcare disparities in academia and of the higher education plans recently put forward by high-profile politicians seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. In addition, I spell out below the kind of educational aims and strategy those of us most severely impacted by the two-tiered system need to adopt if we are to abolish the disparate treatment incisively described as “faculty apartheid.”

The two-tiered system refers to the class structure in academia that bestows a modicum of prestige and influence upon a dwindling portion of the professoriate while ensuring the privileges that shrinking strata of faculty enjoy are made possible by the disempowering of the rest of us who teach at community colleges, state universities and sometimes even Ivy League institutions. The two-tiered system reflects the separation of faculty into haves and have-nots. The system is responsible for the conditions facing ‘contingent faculty’ and ‘adjuncts’ – designations used more or less interchangeably to refer to us have-nots, although ‘adjunct’ tends to imply part-time, per-semester contract status while ‘contingent’ is more of a catch-all for professorial precarity. The two-tiered system is responsible for the new faculty majority of precariously employed professors who rarely know if they will have jobs from one semester to the next. It produces and indicates the existence of déclassé faculty who – despite holding master’s degrees and often enough PhDs – are paid appreciably less than their counterparts on the tenure-track, subsist in poverty or near-poverty and frequently lack basic job benefits. Unlike our tenure-track and tenured colleagues, we adjuncts are subject to the whims of department chairs and upper level administration. We might not get offered classes the next term if lecturer money dries up or if we annoy our chairs, fellow faculty with the power to hire or to deny us work. We are part of the gig economy. The two-tiered system created and continually reproduces a situation in which a significant number of faculty are routine “freeway fliers,” reduced to cobbling together several “part-time” gigs at a couple different schools in order to teach enough classes and earn (just) enough to squeak by, for a while. Maybe. Oh, and sometimes, especially during summers, we work plenty of other jobs too.

Selective Assessments of the Health (Impacts) of Higher Education

The death of an underpaid 83-year-old adjunct, Margaret Mary Vojtko, made headlines a few years back. Thea Hunter, a consummate scholar whose career and life opportunities were fatally limited by the two-tiered system, died last December. “She had a number of ailments that bothered her—her asthma, her heart—and the rigors of being an adjunct added to them,” wrote Adam Harris in his posthumous profile of Hunter, a tenacious historian whose body just could not keep up the fight forever. “Had she been tenured, she would have experienced a sort of security that tenure is designed to provide: a campus office of her own, health insurance, authority and respect with which to navigate campus bureaucracy, greater financial stability. Without tenure, she was unprotected, at the whim of her body’s failings, working long hours for little pay, teaching large survey classes outside of her area of special expertise.”

The two-tiered system perseveres precisely because the human cost of higher education gets placed out of sight, out of mind. Colleges, of course, are not eager to broadcast to the world that despite the always-increasing tuition dollars pouring in, instructors without benefits, offices or job security often teach the majority of classes. The academic underclass is no fun for tenured and tenure-line professors to think about either, especially as they enjoy a comfortable living and decent working conditions while those performing similar – or the exact same – labor flounder.

Even when authors benefitting from the two-tiered system acknowledge the conditions of contingency, they seldom prioritize the problem. The better-off portion of the professoriate makes the obligatory gesture, lamenting the shameful situation their co-workers face, seemingly just so they can feign empathy and tout their progressive chops. It also enables them to avoid looking like the proverbial ostriches with their heads buried in the sand. But when they do acknowledge the plight of adjunct professors, they swiftly de-emphasize that struggle soon after. The framing and focus shift. Elision of the two-tiered system ensures it receives implicit legitimation.

A June 2019 piece by Andrea Chow, “A Tenure-Track Job Means Finally Catching Up on Doctor Visits,” published at The Chronicle, illustrates the rhetorical maneuver. The author detailed how low pay and lack of decent health insurance kept her from getting much-needed medical and dental treatment throughout graduate school. The issue was finally remedied, Chow explains, when she landed a tenure-track job – and the money and health coverage that comes with it. Her criticism of the conditions faced and hardships endured by graduate student workers is spot on and should sound familiar to many contingent faculty who had to earn master’s and doctoral degrees to obtain their precarious positions.

The fact that so many graduate students who pursue their own scholarship while working as low-paid teaching and research assistants will go on to enter a job market that all but assures they will constantly chase and likely never land the ever-elusive tenure-track spot while spinning their wheels as adjuncts is why Chow’s framing is such a problem. “Adjuncts and other contingent faculty members often are forced to let chronic health issues go unresolved for even longer since they spend years in temporary jobs with limited-to-no health insurance and are unable to find tenure-track employment,” she states several paragraphs into the article. Yet, she concludes by emphasizing that if higher education is “to be a viable pathway for anyone other than the independently wealthy,” then “comprehensive and contractually secured health insurance—including dental and vision coverage” ought to be treated “as a basic right” for graduate employees. “Graduate school shouldn’t be a health risk,” she proclaimed toward the end of her piece. Chow is right, but her omission reinforces an awful wrong. There are “chronic health issues” plaguing a whole class of professors who subsist without adequate health insurance and with little income to treat underlying ailments. This issue, which is acknowledged by the author earlier in the article, is forgotten within a few paragraphs. Her refrain from highlighting healthcare as a right for adjuncts too reflects the disregard for non-tenure track faculty inherent in the two-tiered system. The framing helps legitimate that system.

Political Rhetoric Shaping the Understanding of Injustice in Higher Education

Omissions akin to the aforementioned are on display in the mainstream political discourse already receiving added attention in anticipation of the 2020 presidential election.

Not so long ago, former vice president and current presidential hopeful Joe Biden, apparently unfamiliar or unconcerned with the realities of those of us off the tenure-track, blamed college tuition increases on the salaries of professors.

While the political climate has changed, consent for the two-tiered system remains intact. Deafening silence and the art of overlooking crisis function to solicit that consent. Even the most progressive of today’s democratic presidential candidates, including those who otherwise champion issues related to education, are more or less mum when it comes to the issues facing contingent faculty.

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently put forward a plan to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for everyone with a household income under $100,000. Her plan would provide “substantial debt cancellation for every person with household income between $100,000 and $250,000” as well. Her proposal includes a provision for “universal free college” too, which she suggests would grant “every American the opportunity to attend a two-year or four-year public college without paying a dime in tuition or fees.”

Among adjuncts, there are those who dismiss plans for fully publicly funded higher education. They question where the money will come from. For her part, Warren proposes to fit the bill for the broad debt cancellation and universal free college with an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax,” which would amount to an annual two percent tax on families with $50 million or more in wealth.

What the presidential candidate’s self-proclaimed “truly transformational” proposal fails to address, however, is the super-exploited labor of those who teach at colleges and universities in the US. In her post, Warren included links to stories from eight educators whose lives have been adversely affected by student loan debt. Tellingly, no adjunct professors were invited to detail their experiences. Yet we have no shortage of horror stories to share. For example,Ellen Tara James-Penny, an adjunct professor at San Jose State who sleeps in her car because she cannot afford rent, said she is $143,000 in debt because of the student loans she took out when she went back to school after losing her tech job during the dotcom crash. “And I’m in my 50s,” she told the camera. “But I pay that loan [back] every month.”

While Warren’s post contains a promising subhead, “Addressing Inequities in Our Higher Education System” – and a corresponding section that, importantly, explains how her plan will address racial disparities and work to improve enrollment and graduation rates for low-income students – ideas on how to transform the two-tiered system are entirely absent. The self-evident adage, that faculty working conditions are also student learning conditions, evidently did not factor into her diagnosis of what ails higher education in the US, and it did not prompt her campaign team to address one of the most fundamental inequities characterizing it today. Failure to even mention contingency helps guarantee the two-tiered system continues to be academia’s dirtiest and tacitly condoned secret.

Senator Bernie Sanders, another presidential contender and progressive champion on the education front, put forward a proposal earlier this year in which his team stressed that if “you cannot pursue your dream of becoming a teacher, environmentalist, journalist or nurse because you cannot make enough money to cover your monthly student loan payments,” then you are not truly free. In response to those who would dismiss the imperative of free higher education, his team added that “you are not truly free when the vast majority of good-paying jobs require a degree that requires taking out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain.”

Like the Warren campaign, the Sanders camp also explained where the money would come from, which should allay the concerns of those alleging a failure on the part of ambitious politicians to specify how they plan to pay for the abolition of tuition, fees and unpaid student loan debts. The Sanders campaign estimated the cost of making higher education a right coupled with complete student debt cancellation at $2.2 trillion. To cover the cost they propose a Wall Street speculation tax – placing a tax of 50 cents on every $100 of stock trades, plus .1 percent bond trades and a .005 percent derivative trades fees – capable of generating, they estimate, $2.4 trillion over 10 years.

His team noted that, beyond the elimination of tuition and fees, the Sanders plan “will match any additional spending from states and tribes which reduces the cost of attending school at a dollar for dollar rate,” and that the funds could be used “to hire additional faculty, ensure professors get professional development opportunities, and increase students’ access to educational opportunities.” Aside from that tangential reference, though, the post contains no mention of the other major crisis afflicting higher education. The two-tiered system retains staying power and the 1.3 million professors excluded from the tenure track suffer because of the rhetorical and political neglect.

In late June, Sanders – along with Representatives Parmila Javapal and Ilhan Omar – introduced formal legislation to eliminate tuition and fees and to cancel student debt. Their College for All Act creates a federal-state partnership and grant program to eliminate tuition and fees at public institutions of higher learning and at tribal colleges and universities, and it mandates student loan forgiveness. Closer inspection of the text reveals the architects of the legislation gave some thought, albeit maybe only some afterthought, to faculty working conditions. One section stipulates that within five years after an eligible institution receives a grant to go toward tuition and fee elimination, at least 75 percent of instruction there should be performed by tenured or tenure-track professors. Of course, it says nothing about how to create a path toward tenure for those not on the tenure-line. The congresspersons who crafted the legislation might have invoked a model like the one used by the Vancouver Community College system, which enables regularization and some job protection for many instructors who would feel the wrath of contingency were they teaching at most any other school in the US. Yet they did not.

The College for All Act does state that once tuition and fees are eliminated, schools receiving grants should use the remaining funds “to reduce the cost of attendance and increase the quality of instruction and student support services,” and a few of the suggested ways to accomplish that are noteworthy. “Increasing the number and percentage of full-time instructional faculty, including full-time tenure and tenure-track instructional faculty” is one method listed. Another involves equipping “all faculty with professional supports to help students succeed, such as professional development opportunities, office space, and shared governance in the institution” – several workplace rights currently denied quite a few contingent faculty. The final suggested use of surplus funds is the only explicit mention of the academic underclass, and it calls on institutions to remunerate “adjunct and part-time faculty for work done inside and outside of the classroom relating to instruction, such as holding office hours.” If schools used their excess funds in that manner, it would no doubt improve the working conditions for instructors hitherto treated as disposable. However, none of this even begins to dismantle the two-tiered system, and if there are no remaining funds for institutions to work with, then even these inadequate half-measures will remain empty promises.

What Have We Learned?

In May 2019, the Sanders team announced “A Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education,” which focuses on K-12 schooling but contains insights germane to a discussion of the hegemony of academia’s two-tiered system. His team recounted how in the last year we saw thousands upon thousands of teachers go on strike. “The wave of teacher strikes throughout the country provides an historic opportunity to make the investments we desperately need to make our public education system the best in the industrialized world, not one of the poorest,” they wrote.

Arguably, the democratization and revitalization of the Chicago Teachers Union and the 26,000-member strong strike back in September 2012 catalyzed an educator-driven “counter-hegemonic” movement that has only just recently reclaimed the spotlight. That strike, executed in my home state of Illinois, changed the public narrative and showed the strength of social movement unionism rooted in community. A strike wave in traditionally red states like Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia captivated the radical, pedagogical imagination in 2018. In Southern California, not too far a drive from the Inland Empire where I currently live and teach, some 34,000 educators in Los Angeles went on strike and won in early 2019, thereby teaching us another lesson in what organizing and movement building can accomplish. Teachers in Oakland reiterated the message.

Neither the all-too-often-milquetoast, nor the self-styled nor even the meaningfully progressive elements of the relatively empowered professoriate, nor the most progressive of presidential candidates, can be counted on to contest the dominance and legitimacy of the two-tiered system. To do that, precarious faculty have to organize and adopt the sort of militancy our fellow K-12 educators have demonstrated to be both effective and transformative. Solidarity is essential for any serious, successful effort to abolish the two-tiered system. The narrowly focused adjuncts among us who flippantly criticize budding movements toward a tuition and fees free higher education and toward student debt forgiveness ironically echo the dearth of concern the two-tiered system and those benefiting from it tend to show contingent faculty. To be sure, debt cancellation and free higher education are in the interest of a plethora of the already existing academic precariat and should be part of any abolitionist politics worthy of the name. I personally have a total unpaid federal student loan balance of $3,855.41, last I checked. My monthly repayment is just one more bill I can barely afford as an adjunct. And I am not alone (or a loan, as the pun would have it). Folks I went to grad school with, many destined to enter the contingent faculty fray, owed more than $100,000 in student loans. Debt forgiveness and free college are in the interest of future contingent faculty busy accumulating massive debt to pay for the undergraduate and graduate education necessary to do this line of work. Few present and future contingent faculty are going to be excited about organizing with fellow adjuncts who fail to give a shit about their financial situations even though that predicament is inseparable from their struggle as part of the low-paid, precariously employed professoriate.

What is more, adjunct self-organization alone will not suffice. Like K-12 educators have shown, solidarity with students and the surrounding community are key components of successful organizing. Politicians and well-off faculty will stop reproducing consent for the two-tiered system only when students and graduates ally with their current and former professors fighting to survive off the tenure track. We would be presumptuous, indifferent and foolhardy to think students and those in the community saddled with debt post-graduation should or will fight alongside us if we refuse to understand their struggle as our own. If we reject that shared struggle, we teach the sort of insidious lessons that undermine education as a common good and engender the worldviews that make possible the popular acceptance of a pernicious structure of faculty stratification. One of the myths that serves to justify the two-tiered system suggests we adjuncts deserve our lot because we are subpar pedagogues who just do not care or try hard enough. The best way to dispel that is to evince the kind of education we believe in.

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James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various SoCal colleges and universities. He has recently taught classes at Riverside City College and at the University of California, Riverside. He has also worked as a freelance writer for several outlets. 

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